IRVING, Texas — It was perhaps the most exciting 10 minutes in the history of the NFL draft. The most polarizing prospect of the past two decades, Johnny Manziel, was somehow still available as the Cowboys went on the clock at No. 16.
It was a chance to breathe life into American’s (.500) Team. The Heisman-winner from Texas A&M by way of Kerrville would’ve sold hundreds of thousands of jerseys. This would’ve been the most compelling story in the NFL for years to come. Sadly, Jones didn’t have the stomach to stick to his guns and overrule all the dissenting votes coming from his Valley Ranch advisors.
The old man put on a brave face in the aftermath of choosing Notre Dame offensive lineman Zack Martin in the first round. He said the Cowboys never gave any thought to selecting Manziel. But his hangdog expression told a different story.
The league’s greatest showman couldn’t pull the trigger. He told some story about how John Madden had once told him the Cowboys were such a marquee franchise that he didn’t need to go out his way to make a splash. Well, that advice didn’t prevent Jones from signing Terrell Owens despite protests from Bill Parcells. And of course the ultimate example was passing on wide receiver Randy Moss in 1998. It may be one of his biggest regrets.
If Manziel is somehow able to deliver the Cleveland Browns from the NFL wilderness, this move will haunt Jones. This is not to say Martin’s a poor choice. Late Thursday night, two high-ranking executives from AFC teams told me Martin would be a solid starter for years to come. However, he’s not the type of player who can transform an organization.
The Cowboys stuck with a 34-year-old quarterback coming off two back surgeries, in part because they’re on the hook for a ton of money. We’ll never know how long Romo would’ve been able to keep Manziel on the sideline. Aaron Rodgers had to wait his turn in Green Bay before leading the Packers to a Super Bowl title. Steve Young had the same situation in San Francisco. The difference with Manziel is that he would’ve been backing up a gifted quarterback whose career has largely been defined by a lack of postseason success. Favre and Montana had earned the right to hold off talented young quarterbacks.
Jones knew that he was one poor half from a quarterback controversy with Romo and Manziel on the same roster. But maybe a little competition wouldn’t be the worst thing that could’ve happened to Romo. We’ll never know because Jones hasn’t had any inclination to find his successor. With Manziel, Jones would’ve had one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of college football. It’s reasonable to think Romo can be an effective quarterback for two or three more seasons. Manziel has a chance to be great for the next 10 seasons. Martin was asked Thursday if he might always be remembered as the player the Cowboys drafted instead of Manziel.
"That’s fine by me," he said. "I can live up to that."
Maybe he will become part of the one of the best offensive lines in the league, as ESPN’s Jon Gruden suggested Thursday. I’m not sure it matters when you consider how horrid the Cowboys defense was last season. This organization has now taken an offensive lineman in the first round in three of the past four drafts. It’s not a terrible way to build a team.
It’s just not too often the most polarizing team in the NFL has a chance to select the most polarizing player. The other problem is that Jerry didn’t find a way to take charge of the first round when it was obvious he had some leverage. When I asked him if he was surprised that Manziel slid as far as he did, Jones provided an interesting answer.
"I was even more surprised by the fact that he was there didn’t bring on a bonanza of offers that would have given us, maybe, more options," Jones said. "What I was also surprised by was we had the option to take Martin."
The Browns were smart enough to realize they simply needed to jump in front of the Kansas City Chiefs in order to land Manziel. Jones admitted the Cowboys targeted four players at No. 16: UCLA defensive end Anthony Barr, Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald, Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier and Martin. They fielded trade offers to move down from No. 16, but ultimately decided to stay at home and select Martin.
Manziel was asked Thursday night about his thoughts when the Cowboys were on the clock. He provided some excellent analysis.
"I don’t know if the world could’ve handled that, honestly," said Manziel.
For once, maybe Jerry should’ve trusted his gut. File that under signs of the apocalypse.